How to improve your English


Students sometimes ask, “Mr. MacKnight, how can I improve my grammar?” Here’s how.

1. Read every day!

There is no substitute for daily reading. Choose books you like: if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t read. Students who are non-readers will never become fluent writers, because only through years of reading do we develop a strong sense of what sentences should look like when they are written down. Read every day!

2. Copy good writing

If you are reading every day, but want to accelerate your improvement by doing more, it is possible. Trying to memorize a grammar book won’t help. But if you are really determined, there is a good method. It may sound stupid, but it works.

Copy good writing.

I don’t mean, “imitate good writing”. I mean copy it, word for word, comma for comma. By hand. So that it’s perfect. As I say, this may sound stupid, but it will actually force you to slow down and pay attention to the details, and it will teach your muscles to write correctly.

Where to find good writing? Any writing you admire and enjoy will do, but here are two suggestions. First, try any essay by George Orwell. He died about 60 years ago, and he was British, so there will be an occasional word or phrase that may be out of date or unfamiliar. But he remains one of the two or three greatest English-language essayists of the 20th century. Second, try some essays by Paul Graham, who writes as a hobby, mostly, and usually about computer science. But he also writes on more general-interest topics, and he is an excellent stylist.

I suggest that you copy one paragraph every couple of days—two or three a week. Don’t try to go fast; aim to copy everything perfectly, down to the last apostrophe. If you keep at it, I guarantee that your grammar will improve. You will also learn about how to write a great essay.

3 comments to How to improve your English

  • […] Mr. MacKnight tells his students to copy good writing, “word for word, comma for comma. By hand. So that it’s perfect.” This may seem like an odd exercise, but I can say from experience, it works! It will get students questioning why a comma was inserted in one place but not in another, or how an apostrophe is used in possessives. If nothing else, it will get them used to seeing it done correctly, so they can recognize errors in their own writing. […]

  • schast

    Enthusiastic Agreement! I’m even using more reading in Creative Writing classes. And that’s just the beginning–I encourage students to do a series of translations.

    How are you handling texting creeping into students’ writing? I’ve been resisting it, but I’m considering handling it as another level of language and adding translation–as we sometimes do with Shakespeare. Thoughts? Does “real world” learning require English teachers to acknowledge and even respect it?

    • Eric

      My experience is that students are quite able to ‘turn off’ their text-message English when writing more formally, so I haven’t found it to be a problem. On the other hand, it can be a great advantage when teaching them how to take notes: they already know how to abbreviate commonly-used words!



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